GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Richard DeVos, the West Michigan native who co-founded Amway and was one of the area’s biggest philanthropists, has died.
Spokesperson Nick Wasmiller says Rich DeVos’ death was caused by complications from an infection, but that the icon was surrounded by family as he died peacefully at his home in Ada Thursday. He was 92 years old.
DeVos’ wife of some 65 years, Helen DeVos, died in October 2017. They had four children, 16 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Rich DeVos’ family released the following statement shortly after his death:
“Our father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, Rich DeVos, passed away peacefully at home surrounded by his family on September 6, 2018, at age 92.
“Dad spread positivity everywhere he went and encouraged everyone he met. He did that for his children and grandchildren, and for countless others around the world. His positivity was a constant, motivating force that inspired many others to make meaningful changes in their own lives and communities. He was a visionary leader, builder, life enricher, motivator, and a champion for people from all walks of life.
“Rich DeVos was many things to many people, but to us he was simply “Dad,” “Grandpa,” “Bumpa,” or “Papa Great.” We are deeply grateful and blessed beyond measure to have been loved unconditionally, raised, mentored, and inspired by him. He was a role model unlike any other.
“While we are saddened by his passing, our hearts are full as we celebrate the extraordinary life he led. We are comforted that he is reunited with Mom, and that together they are experiencing the joy of eternal life with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
Dozens of other leaders, groups and schools also reflected on his lasting impact on West Michigan.
“The DeVos legacy in Grand Rapids is one of concern and compassion for the people who live in this city, as well as a love of the community that has generated an enormous spillover in economic growth and development,” former Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell said.
Born March 4, 1926, DeVos attended Grand Rapids Christian High School, walking or catching a street car to get to class. When he saw Jay Van Andel had a car, he offered to pay $.25 per week for a ride to school. It launched a lifelong friendship.
DeVos attended Calvin College before serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. After the war, he married Helen Van Wesep in 1953. Together, they raised three sons and a daughter.
After the war, DeVos and Van Andel reunited, owning and operating Wolverine Air Service, teaching others how to fly. They then expanded their interests, opening the first drive-thru restaurant in the area. They moved on to other businesses, forming the JaRi Corporation in 1949 to distribute Nutrilite.
Eventually, they founded Amway — short for “American Way” — in the basements of their Grand Rapids homes in 1959. Their first product was called L.O.C., or liquid organic cleaner.
“The first founding principle of this business is our door is open to anyone — the uneducated, the impoverished, the people who don’t speak well. Our doors are open,” DeVos once said.
More than 55 years later, Amway is one of the world’s largest direct-selling businesses, operating in more than 100 countries.
While multilevel marketing helped the company grow, it also led to a lot of criticism, but DeVos always defended his business.
“Those were the hard days where we had to stand up for this business and fight for when other people accused us of wrongdoing or just not running the business correctly,” he said. “We’ve proven this business. Mainly, we’ve proven it works for people who work it.”
He said he and Van Andel could have moved their business anywhere, but chose to stay in West Michigan even when it didn’t make the best business sense.
“We went out of our way to do business here,” he said. “We did things uneconomically just to keep the manufacturing plant busy in Grand Rapids. We shipped from here all over the world when we should have been having it made over there or done something, but we wanted to do it here.”
The business is still run by members of the DeVos and Van Andel families.
The other family business was basketball. DeVos was also the owner of the Orlando Magic, which he bought in 1991. The team’s home arena is now named the Amway Center.
AMWAY GRAND PLAZA HOTEL AND JW MARRIOTT
The DeVoses, the Van Andels and Amway focused on developing the city they called home. In 1978, they bought the Pantlind hotel on Monroe Avenue in Grand Rapids — then an abandoned and boarded-up eyesore — and transformed it into the high-class Amway Grand Plaza Hotel.
“Rich DeVos with his partner Jay Van Andel took that building and created a world-class hotel in downtown Grand Rapids,” Heartwell said. “And from that we began to see that spillover of investment into downtown — our convention facilities, our fabulous convention facilities, and they made sense for the hotels that were downtown, they helped fill the hotel rooms, many of which were owned by the Van Andel family, but at the same time they spawned a whole new industry, a tourism industry for us in downtown Grand Rapids.”
Years later, DeVos again partnered with Van Andel, despite the latter’s failing health, for one final project — the JW Marriott in downtown Grand Rapids.
“Our family had been talking about the need to build another hotel, so I went over to Jay and said ‘Well, Jay, do you think you got one more big building in you? Would you like to be participating in one more big project?’ And he said,’ Absolutely, don’t leave me out,'” DeVos remembered in 2005. “Even though his health wasn’t good, he wanted to be part of it.”
Van Andel, who battled Parkinson’s disease for many years, died in December 2004.
“There is a bond that existed between us that very few people have in life,” DeVos said as his funeral.
The Grand Rapids J.W. Marriott — the first in the Midwest — opened in 2007.
>>App users: Photos of Rich DeVos’ life
DEVOS FAMILY PHILANTHROPY
The DeVos family’s contributions led to the creation of the DeVos Performance Hall — the city’s first major concert hall — in 1980 and the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in 1993 as part of Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital.
Eighteen years later, the hospital expanded into a new $286 million, 14-floor, state-of-the-art facility that is a source of pride for the family.
“Our joy in watching the Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital happen is greater than any benefit you receive from it,” DeVos said in 2011.
The children’s hospital wasn’t the family’s only contribution to West Michigan medicine. After a heart attack in 1992 and two bypass surgeries, DeVos and his wife moved to London in 1997, where he received a heart transplant before returning home to Grand Rapids. The experience led DeVos to become an advocate of organ donation, helping create the Richard DeVos Heart & Lung Transplant Program at Spectrum Health.
DeVos’ philanthropy helped countless organizations, including the Secchia Center, which houses Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine. The Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation distributes money to a number of local organizations.
“I give because the Lord told me to give, but more than that, I give here because this is our town,” DeVos told 24 Hour News 8 in 2011. “The town doesn’t owe me anything. I grew up here and I was blessed to grow up here and it’s a good place to be.”
It was a message he passed on to his children.
“I have told all my children, ‘This is our town and you are responsible for it. You know we all have a place we have to honor and take care of; this is your place to take care of.’ That’s the way I feel about this town,” he said.
DeVos and Van Andel were part of a generation wealthy residents who made sure to give back to the Grand Rapids area. Another member of that generation was Meijer stores co-founder Frederik Meijer, who died in November 2011.
“Had a lot of fun at what we were doing and helping each other. I’d support what he wanted me to support and he’d support what we wanted him to support. That’s where we really came together,” DeVos said after Meijer’s death. “He and I liked each other and we were serving our community. This was our town.”
“It’s almost impossible with few words to measure the impact of (Richard) DeVos on Grand Rapids,” former Mayor Heartwell said. “It has truly been extraordinary and it goes well beyond the checks he wrote for major initiatives at the hospital, the concert hall, the conventions center. His generosity extended across this community. I’d venture to guess there isn’t somebody who hasn’t been touched in some way by the generosity of Rich DeVos.”
In 2011, city leaders from across the country came to Grand Rapids to see what they could learn about the spirit of giving in Grand Rapids.
“I would say this city is a giving city. I hope you have a community that is full of givers,” DeVos told them. “People ask me when they move to town, ‘How do I meet people?’ I say, ‘Go to one of a hundred banquets around town where they are raising money, buy a ticket, sit down and start talking with people, and you’ll meet a lot of people.'”
A renowned motivational speaker, DeVos appeared before many groups expounding the virtues of free enterprise and a can-do attitude.
“It isn’t with grandiose speeches. It is in simple words of encouragement, a pat on the back, a hand on the shoulder, a little ‘you can do it,’ and a life can be changed, and our country saved,” he said in 1996.
He wrote five books, including “Simply Rich,” “Compassionate Capitalism,” “Hope From My Heart,” and his first work, “Believe,” which was turned into an autobiographical movie by a West Michigan company.
In lieu of flowers, the DeVos family asks donations in Rich DeVos’ honor be made to Grand Rapids Christian School Association, Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, LaGrave Avenue Christian Reformed Church or Prison Fellowship Ministries.
Funeral arrangements are expected to be announced Friday. Updates will be posted on the Rich DeVos tribute website.